The Nation recently posted an article on its website by Marshall Ganz, an ex-union official turned Harvard sociologist, that was interesting for all the wrong reasons. Entitled “How to Organize to Win,” its subject was the upcoming midterm elections. Here is its key argument:
“Hope has begun to focus on November 6, 2018, when we can return to the polls to choose occupants of 435 House and 33 Senate seats, 36 governors, mayors of 23 of our largest cities, and 6,066 state legislators. Pundits speculate on whether this vote will deliver a verdict on the Trump presidency and, if so, what that verdict will be. Democrats hope for a blue wave and Republicans hope their tax cut will turn into votes. However, the real question that we need to ask ourselves now is about how we can organize ourselves to win. We have a choice: Do we invest millions of dollars in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day? Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?”
What’s intriguing about this is the way Ganz assumes what needs to be proven, i.e. that myriad political contests are a positive good or at the very least a fact of life, and that all Americans need to do to turn their society around is turn out in sufficient numbers in a sufficient number of contests. Commitment and enthusiasm — those are the essential requirements. America’s super-baroque political structure goes unquestioned, meanwhile, as does the issue of why America needs all those thousands of legislators in the first place. But for anyone with a sense of history, this is more than a bit curious. After all, the Declaration of Independence, the document that gave birth to the United States, blamed George III for “erect[ing] a multitude of new offices, and sen[ding] hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” If swarms of officials were bad then, why are they uncontroversial now?
In fact, the swarm is even worse than most people imagine. All told, the US has more than 90,000 governmental units at the federal, state, and local level along with more than half a million elected officials. If all those politicians provided America with far-sighted and intelligent leadership, all that duplication and waste might be tolerable. But they don’t, needless to say. Each political contest is more parochial than the next, every debate is more fragmented, while every last candidate is trained the art of prevarication and double talk. The result is parochialism raised to the nth degree.
This is not democracy. To the contrary, it’s a kind of electoral mob rule, something the Founders strove strenuously to avoid but wound up encouraging regardless. Candidates who go through the school of bourgeois American politics undergo stringent training in how to avoid thinking, analyzing, or anything else that might get in the way of one-upping one’s opponent. Rather than broadening one’s outlook to include the whole of society, the idea is to screen all that out so as to focus on the task at hand. Check out Marco Rubio, Adam Schiff, or Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia the next time they crop up on CNN. They are all products of the same rigorous process, one that teaches that all politics are local and that prevarication, double talk, and disciplined mindlessness are the key to success.
Instead of concentrating political energy on the problem at hand, namely America’s deepening political crisis, the effect is to divert it into a swamp of pettiness. Because all this frenetic activity takes place within what is considered to be an unchanging constitutional structure, it serves to insulate the structure itself from scrutiny. The roof is leaking, the beams are sagging, and the entire building is in danger of collapsed. But everyone’s too busy squabbling over some neighborhood issue to notice.
The Constitution doesn’t just permit such myopia but enforces it. The problem of who is responsible for society at large is one the Founders ultimately fudged. The Preamble implies that “we the people” are in charge since they have the ability to “ordain and establish” new constitutions in order to restructure society in their own long-term interest. This would seem to be the textbook definition of popular sovereignty. But the Preamble fails to mention the obvious fact that the people were not only instituting new government but overthrowing an old one in the process, i.e. the 1781 Articles of Confederation. Even better, they did so contrary to the existing law of the land since the Articles said that any constitutional change must be approved by all thirteen states whereas the Constitution said it would be ratified when approved by just nine. It was like telling a cop when he pulls you over for speeding that it doesn’t matter because you’ve decided to change the speed limit. By acting illegally, the people declared their status as the source of law rather than its subject. The people were on top and the Constitution was below, even if the drafters were reluctant to spell out the relationship in too much detail.
But then they muddied the waters even more by installing a fiendishly difficult constitutional amending clause – one requiring approval by two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states to change so much as a comma – in Article V. The effect was to cripple the people’s ability to modify a document made in their name. Rather than above the law, they were now back below it. Popular sovereignty was stillborn. Americans established a swarm of offices to create the illusion of democracy and then cursed and grumbled whenever the constitutional structure careened out of control, which it did quite frequently. But there was nothing they could do because the Founders neglected to provide them with the necessary controls.
This is the American predicament in a nutshell, no matter how much liberals like Ganz pretend otherwise. After nearly a decade of what the Marxist economist Michael Roberts calls “the great recession,” political structures are buckling under the strain – the EU, the UK thanks to Brexit, and so on. But the US is buckling worst of all. The political culture is exhausted, economic polarization is shooting through the roof, while a 240-year-old political structure is grossly at odds with the needs of modern society. It wasn’t the people who voted Trump into office, but the Electoral College. But the college is unchangeable for the simple reason that by doubling or tripling the clout of under-populated states in presidential elections, it insures that they will block anything by way of a constitutional fix aimed at removing their special advantage. So liberals focus their ire on Russia, Cambridge Analytica, or some other villain du jour, anyone and anything, that is, except a yellowing piece of parchment ensconced in the National Archives that is known as the US Constitution.
The “real question,” Ganz goes on, is “how we can organize ourselves to win.” But what does winning mean when the political system is in a free-fall? “Do we invest millions of dollars,” he continues, “in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day? Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?” But how do you rebuild power that never existed in the first place other than in the most ephemeral sense? How does one construct democracy without a stringent analysis of how the current system has gone wrong?
Ganz’s prescription is incorrect. More voters turning out in more elections will not cure a thing. Indeed, it will only add to the cacophony. America’s working people need to take their society in hand, not just bits and pieces of it in countless state and local political contests, but the whole thing from the Constitution on up. Until they do, the crisis can only intensify.